The Egocentric Predicament

Thomas Nagel

  • The False Prison: A Study of the Development of Wittgenstein’s Philosophy, Vol. II by David Pears
    Oxford, 355 pp, £29.50, November 1988, ISBN 0 19 824487 8

When I was an undergraduate at Cornell in the Fifties, it was the only American university where Wittgenstein’s later work was the object of intensive study. He had died in 1951 and Philosophical Investigations was published in 1953. I remember in those pre-xerox days sharing with some fellow students the typing of The Blue Book and The Brown Book in multiple carbons, from a set available in Ithaca – pre-Investigations texts dating from the mid-Thirties which circulated in samizdat until they were finally published in 1960 as part of the still continuing stream of volumes from the Nachlass.[1]

The atmosphere surrounding the study of Wittgenstein was both thrilling and stifling: philosophy was agony, and it was necessary to immerse yourself in problems so deep you could hardly breathe. Superficiality was the great danger; nothing could be achieved without struggle, either in approaching the problems or in understanding what Wittgenstein said. Above all, there was the sense that it was almost impossibly difficult to express the truth – witness Wittgenstein’s own failure to publish all but a fraction of the huge volume of material he wrote after returning to philosophy at the age of 40, so that, except for the Investigations, he stands in a peculiar relation of diminished responsibility to it.

I still think this attitude is basically right. There is no way to approach Wittgenstein except by getting mired up to your ears in apparently insoluble philosophical problems, and then seeing whether the places where he suggests you put your feet actually enable you to walk. Today Wittgenstein’s name is dropped everywhere as the symbol of an easygoing conceptual relativism, and references to the Private Language Argument and Forms of Life are almost as common as references to the Heisenberg Indeterminacy Principle. But that is a cultural curiosity: Wittgenstein’s work is scarcely more accessible now than it was thirty-five years ago. It is too easy to embrace the solutions without understanding the problems. As David Pears observes, ‘when we read one of Wittgenstein’s discussions of philosophical illusions, there are two things which we may not find it easy to hold together in our minds simultaneously, his success in dispelling them and the depth and difficulty of the problems that produced them.’ In this second volume of a formidable two-volume study, Pears tries to provide access to Wittgenstein’s later work through the deep traditional problems to which it is a response – the response of trying to find a way out. This means that the book is difficult. Pears is not an agoniser either temperamentally or stylistically, but he is true to his subject, and while there are things to disagree with, those who work through it will gain a sense of Wittgenstein’s depth and radicalism.

In line with his title, Pears traces the development of Wittgenstein’s thought largely in relation to a theme that has been central in Western philosophy since Descartes, and which Wittgenstein found in Schopenhauer: the suspicion that we are trapped inside our own minds and that nothing we can do in the way of language, thought, imagination or perception will enable us to reach beyond them. Descartes thought of this as a problem about what we can know. He assumed that we could at least form the conception of an external world: the issue was whether we could know anything about it or not. But in the development of modern philosophy through Kant, this evolved into an even more radical doubt about what we can think. Even if there is a world beyond our minds, there seems no way for anything in our experience to make contact with it or represent it as it is in itself, so that the reach of our thought is limited to our own actual or possible experiences, including the experiences of ‘external’ perception.

This position is unstable, however. If even our thoughts cannot reach beyond our minds, the idea of an unreachable world beyond is a conceptual illusion: no such thought is possible; anything we take for the thought of what is unthinkable by us must be something else, or gibberish. We cannot say that we can think of the world only as it appears to us, because the implied contrast is meaningless.

In Wittgenstein’s first book, the Tractates Logico-Philosophicus (1921), this result is embodied in the position that solipsism coincides with pure realism. Everything in the world is equally real – from my sense impressions to the stars – but still the world is my world. This shows itself in the fact that however objectively I describe the world (including gaps to be filled in by the things that I don’t know, and even if that objective description affords no privileged position to the particular person I am), I can always add redundantly: ‘And it is I who am saying and thinking this.’ ‘Everything in the world’ is an expression of my language. Yet I cannot think that I am trapped, for that would require, impossibly, forming the thought of what was unthinkable by me.

The Tractatus offered a general theory of language and thought, and of their relation to the rest of reality. Wittgenstein’s later writings reject the possibility of any such theory, in favour of piecemeal description of samples from the great variety of linguistic and mental activities of which humans are capable. But the egocentric predicament remains a central occupation. Wittgenstein continually raises and attempts to dissolve doubt about the adequacy of our language and thought to reach the world it aims to grasp. The details of his response depend on the particular kind of thought he is discussing – about the physical world, other minds, mathematics, action, sensation, meaning. But the general strategy is to make clear an unintelligibility in such doubts that is quite simple: if they are expressible, they must be wrong. If I say, ‘How is it possible that by merely saying the word “Aristotle” I should be able to refer to Aristotle?’ I seem to have forgotten the beginning of the sentence by the time I get to the end – since the second occurrence of the name has to refer to Aristotle for the question to have any sense. I can’t grab hold of Aristotle himself by some kind of super-linguistic reference, against which it is then possible to criticise the ordinary natural conditions of application of the name as inadequate to their purpose.

The same problem of intelligibility arises if I ask how by using the word ‘plus’ I can capture the operation of addition, which is a function defined over all of the infinite possible pairs of numbers, only a small sample of which I shall ever encounter – or the question of whether my ascription of pain to other people really picks out pain, as opposed to some other sensation, or nothing at all. How are the second halves of these questions supposed to be understood, if the questions are serious?

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[1] Even other people’s lecture notes are being published, most recently Wittgenstein’s Lectures on Philosophical Psychology 1946-47: notes by P.T. Geach, K.J. Shah and A.C. Jackson, edited by P.T. Geach (Harvester, 348 pp., £35, November 1988, 0 85527 526 X). These are three sets of notes from the same lectures, together with discussion, and give some sense of what Wittgenstein was like in action. They remind one also that while the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was a genuine treatise, Wittgenstein’s later writings are more like a distilled version of the bizarre, disconnected activity of philosophical thought and discussion itself – which in most writers results in a highly-structured product unrecognisably different from the process that produced it.

[2] Philosophical Review, July 1968. Pears rightly stresses the importance of these notes, written by Wittgenstein in English between 1934 and 1936, which appear to contain the first appearance of the Private Language Argument.

[3] Wittgenstein, A Life: Young Ludwig (1889-1921) – unsympathetically reviewed in these pages by George Steiner (23 June 1988), who reveals that he has not read the book through (‘One looks in vain for any mention of Fritz Mauthner’), and seems particularly annoyed not to have learned anything about Wittgenstein’s sex life.